Record Reviews 

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The Only Home I've Had

Eric Lewis & Andy Ratliff

(MADJACK)

Bluegrass duo makes timeless sounds.

The first time I saw Andy Ratliff pick up a banjo and wail into the microphone was in the mid-1990s at the P&H Café. He was sitting in with Professor Elixir's Southern Troubadours. The Troubadours' marathon shows had a vaudevillian edge, but not when Ratliff was singing. That's when things got deadly serious. At the time, Eric Lewis, who made his first impression on Memphis playing guitar in the metal band Son of Slam, was reinventing himself as a roots-music Everyman, and when he and Ratliff were both sitting in with Professor Elixir's, things got kicked up a notch, and beer sold like they weren't gonna make any more.

The new album from Lewis and Ratliff, The Only Home I've Had, may lack the rowdy wrong-headedness of those early days, but it conjures the original spirits of the musicians who inspired the madness. It's a mature, sometimes surprising dose of traditional mountain music from a pair of soulful singers and bluegrass pickers in their absolute prime.

The key to the duo's success is restraint. In modern interpretations of bluegrass and mountain music, the focus often shifts to hot virtuosity, putting emphasis on the players rather than the songs. On The Only Home I've Had, the drum-free duo and bassist Todd Cook selflessly serve their material.

The instrumental picking on the disc's opening track, "Going Across the Sea," is mellow, with Scotch-Irish roots hanging out all over. It does little to prepare listeners for the gut-rattling wail of the tough-as-nails outlaw ballad "John Hardy," which, though often covered, is seldom given this much stringy muscle and swagger. Likewise, Lewis and Ratliff's cover of the murderous "Little Maggie" is as hard and dark (if not as lonesome and spooky) as the Stanley Brothers' definitive Mercury recording.

No bluegrass recording is complete without a little gospel tossed in to counter all the murder and drunken mayhem, and the close harmonies of "Hand in Hand with Jesus" accomplish everything a good hymn should. It transcends specific religion and becomes a song of solidarity for any lonesome sinner who thinks he or she can no longer make it alone. Folkies and roots hounds will be delighted by an evergreen recording that exists out of time. -- Chris Davis

Grade: A-

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Hydroradio

The Tennessee Boltsmokers

(MADJACK)

The picking on this bluegrass/folk record -- which takes the pairing of ex-Pawtuckets co-frontman Mark McKinney with guitar/mandolin duo Eric Lewis and Andy Ratliff and expands it with banjo, fiddle, and bass -- is plenty nimble. (See the bluesy "Smoking Gun" or traditional "Shotgun Wedding.") The lyrics have a welcome specificity for a genre where it's too easy to get mired in old-timey tropes. But something's not working here. The tone and sound feel a little too gentle, too quiet. Maybe it's the production; maybe the vocals. But the result is so relaxed it sometimes threatens to be limp. ("Nickel and Dime Blues," "Cotton Farmer") -- Chris Davis

Grade: B

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The Renaissance EP

Antique Curtains

(Makeshift)

At its best, this album could be the mental soundtrack of Ennio Morricone, alone, skateboarding the streets of Venice Beach at 3 a.m., deep into his final ether binge of the evening. There is an insistent sound to this second release from Antique Curtains, a lock-and-lurch assault of drums, bass, fuzz, and riff, above which Mikey B.'s falsetto wafts. His voice is eerie, near broken, but balanced against his intelligent, curt lyrics, it works a trick akin to Pere Ubu frontman David Thomas. The drawback to this short record -- six songs in just over 15 minutes -- is that it's perhaps too consistent. It's when the band goes way out on a limb -- whether it's wasted Western surf punk or the Nirvana-esque riff that underpins their floating harmonies on "Pals" -- that this album really shines. ("Ryno's Bag of Tricks," "My Western Holiday") -- Ben Popper

Grade: B+

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